Flying long haul with under 4s

When it comes to travelling with little ones, organisation is key. When planning our trip to New Zealand I was very aware that I wasn’t the first person to fly across the world with kids, and I wouldn’t be the last, so I decided to trawl the internet for any tips and advice. The internet was surprisingly lacking in help.

Everytime I clicked on an interesting sounding article, blog, or link I was disappointed. Most of the journeys mentioned, although still long haul, were “only” around 10 hours long. Where was the help for those travelling for over 24 hours? For those with stopovers and car journeys of a couple of hours either side of the flight? Where was my reassurance that a family of four wasn't going to go insane somewhere over China?!

I decided to take what advice I could from my research, and just keep everything crossed. My view was “well, once we’re on the plane we can only do our best” and in the end I actually felt reasonably relaxed about the whole thing. 

As we were mostly going to be sitting as two pairs on the plane I bought and packed the children a cheap drawstring bag each. This way they each had their own things, and weren’t fighting over who got what. I also had "spares"in my bag and the suitcases for both emergencies, and the journey home.

Charlotte's hand luggage - age 3.5

Benjamin's hand luggage - age 21 months

As well as what is featured in the pictures, they each had a few little plastic toys, plenty of snacks, a pair of pjs, their Kindle’s, headphones, and a change of clothes. They each chose a magazine at the airport shop on the way home. I’m not a fan of plastic magazine tat, but the tat, magazine and accompanying stickers kept them occupied for quite a long time. I put the nappy changing things in my bag, along with emergency crisp and chocolate bribes!

Activity "spares" for the journey home

So, after preparing and organising ourselves as much as we could, how was the reality of travelling so far with a 3.5 and a 1.5 year old? It was actually fine. Not ideal, and not all plain sailing, but it was fine. I won’t bore you with a detailed account of four 12 hour flights, but these were my main thoughts that, hopefully, you will find helpful.

1) Book a night flight - hopefully the kids will be shattered, and once the food has been cleared away they will then have a good chunk of sleep.

2) Don’t worry about screen time - although we watch tv and films at home the kids didn’t have tablets until this trip. We just let them use whatever kept them happy - anything for an easy life. 

3) Take bottles of water (or empty bottles to refill) - I don’t know if it’s because we were on night flights, but the cabin crew weren’t great at offering water. We made sure the children each had a water bottle with a sports lid. This meant we didn’t have to keep buzzing the crew, and we didn’t have to worry about where we were balancing flimsy plastic cups of water.

4) Think about where you sit - all the planes we travelled on were 9 seats across in a 3+3+3 formation. Due to rescheduled flights and other factors we ended up having a variety of seat combinations across our 4 flights. We mostly sat in two pairs, across the aisle from each other, but on the final leg home we were allocated 3 seats by the window, and 1 seat across the aisle. Although this meant I had both kids for most of a 12 hour journey, this was actually my preferred option (apart from the leg where Benjamin and I had 3 seats all to ourselves!). We put up all the arm rests, Charlotte stretched out on the window and middle seat, and I sat in the aisle seat with Benjamin either asleep on me, watching films on my lap, or squeezing next to me and Charlotte's feet.

Bulkhead seats are a great option for the extra leg room, or if you have a small baby who could make use of any pull down cots the aircraft might have. However, I wasn’t a fan - I’m short, and can do without the leg space! Bags must be stored in the overhead locker, so the kids didn’t have easy access to their stuff during take off (or the hour we were sitting on the plane waiting to taxi). The screens are further away, so tricky to faff with when you have to have your seat belt on (or are trapped under a sleeping child). The tray tables were stored in the armrest, were a bit smaller, and made it easier for the things to slide off. Whilst sat in bulkhead seats we were only able to lift the armrest in the plane's middle block of seats. When sat in the bulkhead seats by the window the arm rest didn’t lift, and Charlotte couldn’t get comfortable. So I ended up with both kids in the middle block of seats (not bulkhead, and the person in front reclined), perched on the edge of my seat with Charlotte’s legs behind me, and with Benjamin on my lap. Not the most comfortable 8 hours of my life.       

5) Pack lots of clean clothes - Although Benjamin and I didn’t really need any spare clothes, Charlotte and Stu could have done with a few spare sets! Despite never having been travel sick (or even very sick at all ever) Charlotte suffered a bit on one of our flights home. We used her spare clothes pretty quickly, but still had 20+ hours of travelling ahead of us. Luckily, her aim got better as the flight went on (!) so we didn’t desperately need any more clothes, but I would have liked to freshen her up a bit better than we managed to at our stopover in Hong Kong.  

6) Nappy sacks and baby wipes - even if your children are out of nappies, I would still take baby wipes and nappy sacks. All parents know that baby wipes are excellent for cleaning up any spillages, but taking nappy sacks means you also have somewhere to stick any used wipes or soiled clothes.

7) Organise hand luggage - I organised the kids hand luggage so that I could easily rummage and grab what I wanted, when I wanted it. Not the most environmentally friendly option, but I bought a pack of Ikea ziplock bags and separated everything out into these. Snacks in one, cars in another, pencils in another...etc. As they are clear you can easily see what is in each and lay your hands on what you need without too much hassle. I took all the spares in my suitcase too. Good for separating out snacks on days out when you don’t want to carry around a whole packet of biscuits or crackers...or so you can give the children a bag each to stop them scrapping! Also make handy shell collecting bags on the beach.

8) Play in the airport - If you have a stopover, or even if you just have a lot of time to kill in the airport, find the play areas so the kids can burn some energy and stretch their legs. Obviously airports are often large, and very busy, and there's a lot going on, with a lot of distractions. Whilst I was trying to explain this to Benjamin, and was giving him the option of either holding my hand or be carried, a stickybeak decided to butt in and tell me I was a "very serious parent". Rather a serious parent than one who loses their child in Auckland Airport, right? Anyway, if you can, contain your little people in one area where it's easy to keep an eye on them.

Hong Kong Airport
If there's no play area, or suitable space to let them have a bit of a run around, make your own fun! We went on a lot of travelators, tested a lot of perfumes (Charlotte told the assistant that the new Chanel fragrance was "yuck"), watched planes out of the window, and browsed lots of books in the newsagents.

So, in short. Travelling to the other side of the world with two under 4s was far better than I expected. The kids coped really well, and I was so proud of them both. Was it the most relaxing travel experience of my life? No. Has it put me off doing it again? No. Was it worth the journey? Absolutely yes! 

What are your essential long haul flying tips for preschoolers?

Flying long haul with children under 4